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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                       ^
week's tobacco ration to convert an old officer's belt of
his into two straps with loops and buckles with which he
intended to fasten his artificial feet to the pedals of the
plane he was to fly. In view of the urgency and unusual
nature of the order, the shoemaker demanded half a litre
of vodka in addition to the tobacco, and promised to
make a "good job" of it. Meresyev returned to the air-
field and watched the flights as though they were not or-
dinary training flights, but a competition between super-
aces until the last plane was taxied to the line and fastened
with ropes. He did not so much watch the flights as breathe
the atmosphere of the airfield, absorb the activity, the
inceasing roar of the engines, the dull thud of rockets and
the smell of fuel and lubrication. His whole being rejoiced,
and the idea that tomorrow his plane might refuse to obey
him, get out of hand and crash, never entered his mind.
He turned up at the airfield next morning when it was
still deserted. Away out on the line the engines being
warmed up were roaring, the warming stoves were shooting
out flames^nd the mechanics, who were starting the pro-
pellers, leapt away from them as if they were snakes. The
familiar morning cries and responses were heard:
"Ready!"
"Contact!"
"Contact!"
Somebody swore at Alexei and asked him what the hell
he was doing hanging around the planes so early in the
morning. He answered with a jest and kept on repeating
like a merry refrain that for some reason held sunk into
his mind: "Ready, contact, contact.*' At last the planes
slowly taxied to the starting line, hopping and rolling
awkwardly from side to side with trembling wings which
the mechanics were supporting. By this time Naumov
arrived, smoking the stump of a cigarette, so short that he
seemed to be drawing smoke from his nicotine-stained
finger-tips.
"So you've turned up!" he said in answer to AlexeTs
formal salute. "All right. First come, first served. Get into
the rear cockpit of number nine over there. Ill be with
you in a minute. We'll see what kind of a bird you are."
He took a few last, hurried puffs at his fag while Alexei
hastened to the plane. He wanted to fasten his feet to the